Musical Instrument Designer at Dean Guitars
Designing new instruments can be a real challenge, especially when you work for a well established and respected company like Dean. Mick Donner has been creating new guitars for many years and is up to the task! Mick took some time from his hectic schedule to tell us about Dean's basses and much more. Thanks Mick!
Tell us about the new 10-string bass that you introduced at the NAMM show. Is it a USA-made bass or an import? What finishes / options are available? How is it strung?
Because this bass is part of our “Hammer” family, the neck and body are made from solid mahogany with a rosewood fretboard. I really hate covering up all that natural wood so the Hammer basses are only available in a natural oil finish. The bass is an import so we aren’t really able to offer much in the way of options for it.
The bass is strung bB-eE-aA-dD-gG.
What led up to the introduction of the 10-string? Was there a specific consumer demand you were looking to fill, or is this a first 'test' step into a potential new market?
This was one of those things that I actually was thinking about before last year’s Anaheim show but, at that time, I’d only been with Dean for about a month so I really didn’t get a chance to work out the details before NAMM. The Summer show was consumed with the Stylist bass and the reissues of the Z and Caddy basses along with several new guitars so the 10-string had to wait for 2004. The 10-string just seemed like a no-brainer to me. There were plenty of guys out there playing heavy music on 5-string so the 10 just seemed like a natural extension of the instrument.
I worked for Parker guitars for a number of years and when we debuted the Parker Bass at Winter NAMM a couple of years ago I met Jauqo III-X. He was really interested in the Parker and I was really taken with his pop/slap/pick technique (you have to see this to believe it!). We started talking and eventually we got around to the 15 string that the guys at Warrior had made for him. That’s probably the spark that lit the fire under this project. Jauqo and I stayed in touch and, when we met again last Summer in Nashville, I started seeking serious input from him and other multi-string bassists so I could start putting this thing together.
The Rhapsody 12-string bass is now well established, perhaps thanks in part to its very affordable price. Since its introduction it has only been available in the Transparent Black finish. Are there any plans to offer other finishes? Or maybe even another body style?
The Rhapsody is an import bass and the sad fact with imports is that it’s a numbers game. Because 12-strings are going to sell in limited numbers at best, we needed to pick a color that would appeal to the greatest number of players. As always, it’s black. The Rhapsody’s popularity has weakened a little so we’ve pared the line down to the semi-hollow version in fretted and fretless, the 8-string in bubinga, and the 12. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of doing a 12 in another body style, but it’s not on my immediate to do list right now.
The neck width on the Rhapsody is a bit wider than most 12's. What feedback have you received about this?
For the most part, everybody I talk to is grateful for the extra room and most would like it even wider. At that point, I really start getting into hardware concerns and finding a bridge that will support wider spacing.
Have you considered offering a USA-made 12? Do you think the demand for 8 and 12-string basses is sufficiently large at this point to warrant new models, or are these still a very small niche market?
These basses are still, largely, a niche market. However, Dean has never shied away from niche markets. We make 6 and 12-string banjos and even a 9-string mandolin so there really isn’t too much that we’re afraid to take a shot at.
The Dean Custom Shop has produced some very cool guitars over the years, the white "Fur" guitars played by ZZ Top spring immediately to mind. How important is custom work to the company today? Would you characterize Dean more as a Custom guitar company or as a Production Line company?
This is one of the great advantages to being at Dean. We get to do both the custom and the production line stuff. We still get requests for a lot of custom work in the U.S.A. Time Capsule guitars and we offer a lot of different options in color, hardware, binding, inlays, etc… all within the confines of the V, Z, ML, and Caddy shapes. We’ve also started doing some exotic wood tops like spalted maple and burled redwood.
How important are artist endorsements?
Artist endorsement is always a big part of being in this end of the business but I’ve always seen endorsements as more of a partnership. Most of my past relationships with artists have really been more give and take than anything. They let me know what they need and I learn a lot in the process of trying to give it to them. I’ve never done a stadium gig in front of thousands of people but I’ve built basses for guys who do. They bring that experience into my shop and we all end up with better basses.
Dean recently started using Everly strings on the 8 and 12-string basses. How do the Everly strings compare to other brands of strings you've used?
I want to clarify that the strings I buy from Everly are just for our set up guys and most of the basses you will see in stores have the stock Korean strings on them. That said, I can’t say enough about Joe Iacobellis and Everly. These guys are a lot like us. They’re just not afraid to try stuff and when I asked them for certain gauges of strings they were up to the task. I’ve been buying them ever since. I know that GHS has made some strings for us in the past and that SIT is working on a 12-string set with Jauqo that’s going to really be good. I don’t have much experience with any other companies.
Before you joined Dean you were a designer for Peavey. How long have you been creating guitars? What got you interested in instrument design?
Actually, I’ve been around the industry for a LONG time. I started at Washburn in 1986. I still have the original drawings for the Washburn Acoustic Bass Guitar stashed at home somewhere. After that, I worked at Gibson for a year and then to Peavey for 6 years. While I was at Peavey I worked on Jeff Berlin and Brian Bromberg’s basses as well as the Midibase and CyberBass. I got to build basses for a really long list of players while I was there. After I left Peavey, it was my great fortune to work for Ken Parker for 6 years. Ken is probably one of the smartest guys in our industry and I learned volumes from him about everything from composites to hot sauce. Ken was kind enough to let me help in the development of the Parker Bass. Again, a great learning experience. When Parker downsized a little over a year ago, I was let go. At that time Jeff Berlin and Brian Bromberg were both Dean endorsers. They both recommended me to Elliot Rubinson (owner of Dean and also a great bass player) and the rest is history.
I got started in design back when I first started as an independent builder. I was a road musician and, when I came in off the road for the last time, I started doing some repair work at Ye Olde Guitar Shoppe in Des Moines. I got the opportunity to apprentice with an arch-top builder named Lyle Haldy after which I started doing some custom builds for local pros. Washburn hired me out of the shop and one day Rudy Schlacher (Washburn’s owner) asked me to make a drawing of an updated Strat body for the Korean factory. This drawing became the Washburn KC series. Later I did some work on the Stephens extended cutaway basses and eventually worked on the Washburn ABG basses. My career just snowballed from there.
How do you design a new instrument? Where do you get your inspiration? Do you start with a specific look in mind or just start in a general direction and see what develops? Do you use a computer and CAD software in the process?
Designing an instrument is all of the above. I never really know where the inspiration is going to come from. Being a former working musician, most of the time necessity is my greatest impetus for a new instrument. For me, new stuff usually starts as a concept and then I try to shape the actual instrument to best fit the concept functionally, physically, and aesthetically.
Up until recently I’ve been a paper and pencil guy but last year I decided to join the 20th Century and bought a drawing program. So far, it’s been a lot of fun.
So tell me about your electric upright bass. Is that one of your original designs? Do you get many calls for uprights? And when will we be seeing this in the stores?
We're going to call it the Pace Bass. The Pace Bass is a short scale (prototypes were 34” but I think production will be 35” to save time on the eventual 5-string) electric upright. That’s based on an instrument that I built for myself over 10 years ago. It has an electric piezo bridge with a buffer pre-amp exactly like the original. The only real improvement I’ve made is in the hardware. The stand has a universal ball joint that allows for an infinite number of playing positions. We introduced it at this NAMM show along with the Hammer 10, the Sledgehammer, and the Edge Quilt arch-top basses. We got a very favorable reaction to the concept and the price (MSRP $1000) and this should be in stores in 90 to 120 days.
Are there any new developments in materials that may be incorporated into future Dean instruments? How do you decide upon new finishes?
Sometimes it seems like new instrument materials are surfacing on a daily basis. I try to investigate as many as I can but usually I end up coming back to good old miracle fiber W (wood). If something comes to my attention and it really validates itself in the design and building processes I’ll probably give it a fair shot.
Finishes are the passing fancies of our industry. They’re really fashion driven like our clothing because… we wear them. Of course, the finish needs to be in line with the instrument. I’m not going to put an opaque chartreuse finish on a nice piece of burled wood.
What do you think is your best work? Is there a specific design or project you take a special pride in?
That’s a tough question to answer without sounding too full of myself. First, I need to say that I’ve probably only done one or two instruments totally alone. Most of what I’ve done has always been some sort of team effort because I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t have all the answers. My favorite collaborations have been with Steve Chick on the Peavey Midi and Cyber Basses, Brian Bromberg on both Peavey B Quad and Dean B Squared basses, Ken Parker on the Parker Bass, and, most recently, with Elliot Rubinson on some of the new Dean stuff. It’s great to have a boss that really gets bass and he’s really been great about giving me a lot of creative freedom. Most days my marching orders from him are, “Go do stuff”.
You and Dean president Elliot Rubinson both play bass. What models of basses do you play, and do either of you spend much time with the 12?
Elliot has an extensive collection of vintage basses that includes a few of the old Dean instruments from the 80’s. I know that, up until recently, he was playing a Razor and now is playing the Edge Pro most of the time. I have a lot of proto stuff that I play. I have a Stylist bass which is loads of fun, the prototype to the new electric upright, and I’ll probably pick up a Hammer 5-string some time this year. The 12 is a lot of fun but, having been a musical mercenary most of my professional life, I’ve never been called to play much 12. Elliot probably has a 12 I don’t know if he plays it much or not.
Finally, I have to ask you about the Dean Girls. Many different guitar companies have incorporated beautiful women into their advertising and at trade shows over the years, but the Dean Girls really stand out from the crowd. How important are they to calling attention to and keeping attention on Dean guitars? Where do you find your girls? And do you have any of their phone numbers you can give me?
Here’s the interesting part: I’m not sure if this is still true but back in the 70’s when Dean was just getting started, the percentage of men reading Guitar Player was higher than the percentage of men reading Playboy. Dean Zelinsky was smart enough to recognize this fact and capitalized on it. The girls have been part of the Dean booth at trade shows for so long, people just expect them to be there. It wouldn’t be a Dean booth without them.
The Dean girls stand out because we simply have more experience in picking the girls and knowing what to tell them to do during a show. Dean finds them through local modeling agencies. The girls we had in Anaheim were great. They were a lot of fun and knew how to engage not just guys but everyone who walked by the booth. Sorry, I don’t have any phone numbers for you.
Thanks Mick for taking the time to answer our questions and provide photos, it is greatly appreciated!
I hope this has been helpful and I haven’t come off as some sort of egomaniac. It’s always hard to talk about yourself. Because of the Rhapsody 12, I get a lot of feedback from guys who populate your site. I think that it’s great that there’s someplace to go to get info on instruments that are so few and far between.
Editor's Note: This interview was originally published in 2005. Mick left Dean in June of 2006.